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The Face on the Canvas and Other Mysteries

March 13, 2011


Jim Nutt with his wife, the artist Gladys Nilsson.                                     Sally Ryan for The New York Times.

ONE would think that the artist Jim Nutt would have a lot to say about the subject he’s been painting over and over, day after day, for the last 25 years: the off-kilter face of an imaginary woman with an impossibly monumental nose, an image that is apparently never too far from his mind.

One would be wrong.

Seated in his studio on a snow-covered street in this town just north of Chicago, Mr. Nutt, 72, laughed nervously in response to nearly every inquiry about the project that has consumed him for decades. “I don’t know,” he said, repeatedly and reflexively.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Mr. Nutt allowed when asked how the series got started and what it meant back then. More uncomfortable chuckling.

Stroking the bushy mustache he has worn since his early fame as a member of the 1960s Chicago artist groups the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, Mr. Nutt was always unfailingly polite and friendly, even as he evaded questions. But in an age when artists are trained to explain the point of their work succinctly — the better to market it to collectors, curators and dealers — there seemed to be something either willful or strangely innocent in Mr. Nutt’s responses. Or possibly both.

Nearby, in the latest iteration of his long-running series, a small in-progress canvas showed a stylized woman’s face and upper torso, with signature nose and 1940s chignon hairdo, in a palette of blues, greens and purples — except for the coral-colored lips. The relatively flat handling of paint with significant areas of pure color was typical of recent treatments of the woman.

Read more at:  The Face on the Canvas and Other Mysteries

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